By Sarah Kwak
NEW YORK — Talk about a season on the edge. Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden saw the Rangers and their title hopes pushed literally to the brink -- twice. On two separate occasions, the puck made it right to New York’s goal line and stopped, just inches short of a potential momentum-changing goal.
“Thank God for soft ice now and then,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault joked after the game.
In the first period, defenseman Anton Stralman swept the puck off the goal line as he battled Kings center Jeff Carter behind Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Two periods later, it was center Derek Stepan who swiped it out of the crease with the Kings' net empty and just 71 seconds on the clock. Twice, the Rangers saw their season at the lip of the cliff, and twice they saved it, eking out the 2-1 win and sending the series back to Los Angeles for another do-or-die game on Friday.
After the first three games, the Rangers felt they had lost them all largely because of unlucky bounces and breaks, but this time they found themselves on the receiving end of some very good fortune.
“It seems like we deserved some of that after the first three games, when we didn’t get any bounces our way,” New York winger Rick Nash said. “And it showed that our hard work paid off tonight.”
The Rangers had no choice but to play desperately right from the start. They had their first quality chance right off the opening face-off and seemed to have the legs to keep up with the Kings, despite going without a shot for the first five minutes of the game, just as they had on Monday night. But unlike Game 3, the Rangers did well with their chances, however limited they were.
After going 0-for-6 with the man advantage in Game 3, New York’s power play looked better, maintaining zone time and making the Kings chase. Just two seconds after a power play expired, the Rangers cashed in at 7:25 when winger Benoit Pouliot expertly deflected a John Moore shot from the point past Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick. The goal ignited the Garden, which two nights earlier had as much atmosphere as the Moon. But if the one-goal lead pumped some energy into the fans, it seemed to have the opposite effect on the Rangers, who promptly went four minutes without a shot attempt and nearly 12 minutes before getting another puck on Quick.
Still, the Blueshirts managed to push their lead to two midway through the second period when winger Martin St. Louis scored his eighth goal of the postseason by knocking the loose puck behind Quick. That, however, reawakened the potential of the curse of the two-goal lead. Just 2:19 after New York took its 2-0 lead, the Kings cut it in half when captain Dustin Brown pounced on a bad Ranger break — literally. Defenseman Dan Girardi’s stick broke while he was handling the puck at the point and Brown went flying on a breakaway. He stickhandled at full speed and deked six times before slipping the disc past Lundqvist. The goal injected life into the Kings' offense, which went on outshoot the Rangers, 11-2, for the duration of the second period.
“I thought after that, we weren’t maybe as efficient as we had been,” Vigneault said. “You’re trying to tell your players not to play on their heels, keep managing the puck and make plays. But, you know, at some point you got to give credit to the opposition ... That’s the best that they’ve played in this series. They came at us real hard.”
Coming from Vigneault, a man who after Game 2 called Los Angeles “one of the best teams I’ve seen in a long time,” that statement should mean something. In the third period on Wednesday night, the Kings outshot the Rangers, 15-1, and forced them into a defensive posture so tight that they might as well have been in a fetal position for the final 20 minutes of the game.
And yet, New York managed to come away with the win because of Lundqvist. Making 40 saves on the night, the veteran goalie added to his legend by living up to his reputation as the King of Do-or-Die. Lundqvist hasn’t lost an elimination game on home ice since 2007, winning eight straight while averaging a .99 GAA and .968 save percentage.
“[Lundqvist] is our best player,” Nash said. “He’s been our best player all year. One of the best goalies in the world, and it’s huge to have him as the backbone of our team.”
Here, playing to keep the season alive, but also to avoid the humiliation of becoming the first team to be swept in the Cup final since 1998, Lundqvist entered his special zone and now the Rangers live on.
“We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice tonight,” he said. “Just the thought of it makes me feel sick.”
Ultimately, Lundqvist saved his stomach, and the Rangers' season, at least for one more night.